CEO of Early Years - the Organisation for Young People in Northern Ireland

What was your main motivation to carve your organisation with a social conscience?

An understanding of how impactful we could be for children, families and communities especially in a divided society like Northern Ireland.  Building on our founding mothers, five wonderful social entrepreneurs who had the foresight to set up NIPPA (now Early Years) after the war to get nurseries for children. Not just that, but they also started the movement about how we help children.  They worked, volunteered and raised money through cake sales and other activities to build the movement and were the first to send people to the first Convention in Geneva.  

How do you tackle the highs and lows of running an organisation?

Accept that there will be great heights and successes but there will also be the humdrum and the bureaucratic and the crisis that can silently sneak up on you or hit your full force. When they arrive be ready to deal with them. It’s always good to have a solid team and a steady Board. You also need to know where to go for your own support. I got this from my international colleagues.

Sometimes, it’s a small thing that blows up into a big drama and it can come from anywhere – finance, people, external policies. Steady the ship and revert back to your values.  During a crisis your values become even more important. Remember, staff and trustees come and go but the organisation should remain at the centre.

Ironically, some of our great crisis arrive just as we are on the cusp of a great celebration which can sour it a bit but always take time to celebrate as it buoys you for the tricky times.

What is the one book we should read, podcast we should listen to or piece of art we should encounter to better understand the world of early years?

Everyone please read:

Loris Malaguzzi:  The 100 Languages of Children

Robert Putnam: Bowling Alone

Peter Bloc: Community

They all speak to what we are about in terms of an advocacy movement here in Northern Ireland to build capacity for children, families and communities framed within the ecological model.

What are you interested in that most people aren’t and should be?

Poetry because it speaks to the soul and the mind. My favourites are Seamus Heeney, Patrick Kavanagh and of course WB Yeats.

What’s a project you’ve dreamed about but haven’t started yet?

The dream project is converting a former workhouse building into a wonderful high quality space for children from all parts of the Ulster divide who can enjoy and experience great play together. It will be in designed within the context of rural County Tyrone. John Paul Letterack says for every one year of conflict it takes 10 years to heal so that sets us on a trajectory of 300 years we need to speed this up where we can.

What’s the most ridiculous think you have ever done in the name of Early Years?

Dressed up as Tina Turner and sang Simply the Best at a NI Conference at the most prestigious SlieveDonard where the Mountains of Mourne sweep to the sea.

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. I was a bit naïve when I started out and thought most people have the same values for children and was surprised where the opposition comes from and being able to read it quickly and clearly.

Just for fun, If someone made a film of your work, who would you ask to play you?

Meryl Streep

Tea or G and T?

G and T all the way and it has to be Kilbroney Pink Gin – named after one of the great Celtic women leaders.